Micato Safari's Livingstone Wing Safari: At Home in Africa

By David Cogswell

An African safari is a trip without peer. No matter how far forward we evolve into the brave new world of digital technology and biotech, Africa still presents us nature in the raw, and it is stunning. There is no virtual reality that can capture it, and nothing like the real thing. To see the lions, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, zebras and wildebeests roaming freely on the plains of Kenya is an exhilarating experience that cannot be described with words. And you don't have to be a wildlife enthusiast to be swept away by the experience. The effect is as powerful to the high-tech worker as to the rustic. In fact, as futurist Alvin Toffler suggested, the greater the high tech component of our environment, the more we need to balance it with "high touch" elements. By the growing popularity of safaris, it looks like he was right.

Unlike the safaris made famous by Ernest Hemingway, today's safaris don't involve shooting animals, only watching them. But the excitement of safari travelers in pursuit of their quarry reveals a hunger that must be as strong as that which motivated the big game hunters in earlier generations.

Those who have been on safari do not easily tire of talking about their experiences. Safari veterans are the best sales people for the product. "At an event in Chicago last week a couple who had just come back from safari brought their photo albums," says Dennis Pinto, president of Micato's American operation. "I didn't say a word all night. They just rambled on. They clearly had more credibility than I had."

Travel Agent recently sampled Micato's Livingstone Wing Safari. The tour operator's home office is in Nairobi, where it operates its own tours with its own ground crew. A family business that is still operated like a family business, the company was founded 30 years ago. It is owned and operated by the Pinto family, Felix and Jane, who are third generation Kenyans. Their son Dennis Pinto runs the U.S. office in New York. Micato's specialty is safaris to East Africa. The Pintos don't attempt to cover the entire world, preferring instead to concentrate on operating their African tours with a very personal, hands-on style. No tour participant will ever feel like they are merely a number in the system of a large, distant company.

While our group was in Nairobi, Micato brought 11 groups into town and Jane Pinto greeted every one personally and invited them to her home for dinner. She checks in with all the tour groups periodically to see how they are faring and to address their concerns. The business originally grew out of Jane Pinto's propensity to be always entertaining international guests when they came through Nairobi. Today every client is a personal guest of the Pintos, and even though Americans are about as far from their familiar environment as they ever get, they will invariably feel at home on a Micato safari.

The maximum group size is 24 people. The departures are guaranteed, so sometimes the groups are very small. Ours was only four people. It was almost like having a private guide.

Target Clientele: The target clientele for safaris is widening as clients' taste for adventure and new experiences deepens and safaris become more accessible and affordable. The 1999 land price was $2,380-$3,095 plus air fare of around $1,649 per person double, so target clients are fairly affluent. Safaris appeal to all ages and have become successful as family itineraries.

Guides: Micato's crew, its guides in particular, are of the highest quality. All Micato guides undergo a two-year intensive training course at Kenya Utalii College. Their test scores on the test given by the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association are the envy of every safari company. Many of the safari operators do not provide a tour director in addition to the driver, but instead offer a 'driver/guide." Micato provides a tour director who accompanies the group the entire time it is in Kenya.

Our guide, Duncan Rutieri, brought together a smooth blend of the very diverse qualities needed to perform the demanding function of tour director. He was experienced, well read, very knowledgeable about Kenya, the customs, the wildlife and the specifics of the itinerary. But perhaps most importantly, he had the human qualities, the warmth, congeniality and humor that make clients feel comfortable and reassured. He handled the myriad details and logistics of moving a group from place to place while maintaining a veneer of perfect ease, which allowed the clients to let loose and enjoy themselves to the max.

Accommodations: Grand Regency Hotel in Nairobi is a top quality international hotel with all the comforts, including many of the things you don't need on safari, like CNN. The group stayed there for two nights upon arrival and one afternoon after returning from the bush. The first night out of Nairobi, we stayed for two nights at the Oltukai Lodge at Amboseli National Park. It combined a rustic decor with an ambiance of comfort. Cabins were equipped with a large bed with a canopy for mosquito netting, a stone floor and one stone wall and a wood cathedral ceiling. The plains were visible from the windows, with zebras and wildebeests actually running, grazing and playing nearby. There were 48 rooms in four fourplexes. Meals were a high quality selection of Kenyan and American dishes served buffet style, with American breakfasts.

Two nights were spent at the Mara Safari Club in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. A rustic central clubhouse served as a headquarters, surrounded by luxuriously furnished tents with two twin beds, bathroom, closet bureau and a wooden plank balcony overlooking the Mara River. Sweetwater's Tented Camp had tents similar to the Mara Safari Club, with a tile floor bathroom a king-size bed and lantern-style electric lamps.

One night was spent in the Ark, a resort perched out over a wildlife refuge so patrons can watch wildlife from windows and observation decks. Excellent food, game viewing not too spectacular. Saw some elephants, hyenas, lots of birds.

The Mt. Kenya Safari Club is one of the most opulent properties anywhere, built on a grand estate within view of Mt. Kenya. It was founded by William Holden and two financiers and was a notorious playground for the rich and famous. Separate cottages house fireplaces, bars, two bedrooms with ornate bathrooms and a central living room.

Transportation: A variety of modes of transportation are used on this tour, most of it in the air except on the game drives.

Micato's airline partner is Air France. The transatlantic flight was to Paris, where we changed planes for Nairobi. The service was very friendly and the food was excellent. The flight left New York around 6 p.m. and arrived seven hours later in Paris in early morning local time. The flight to Nairobi from Paris is about nine hours.

The trip from Nairobi to Amboseli was on an 18 passenger plane. The flight to Maasai Mara was aboard a 48-passenger four-engine plane. Game drives at Maasai Mara used four-wheel-drive Toyota land cruisers. The return from Maasai Mara to Nairobi was aboard a 48-passenger plane, then the group rode in a Micato minibus to Sweetwaters Tented Camp. It was a pleasant four-hour drive that provided an opportunity to see the countryside. The trip to Aberdare National Park was a short drive.

An optional hot air balloon ride is offered over the Maasai Mara. The landing segues into a champagne breakfast on the plains. It is a fantastic experience if the $400 ticket price is within the budget.

Meals: All the meals were included, all were excellent, with lots of good quality food, a variety of choices including Kenya style as well as American style dishes. In this department the only danger was eating way too much and putting on 20 pounds or so during the week.

Sightseeing: The tour begins with a flight into Nairobi which arrives in the evening and clients go to the hotel for the night. The first day on land is spent exploring the city and its environs, including The Karen Blixen Museum; the estate of the author of Out of Africa. Dinner is at the Pinto residence.

The next day, the party flies to Amboseli national park, overnights at the Ol Tukai Lodge and goes on morning and afternoon game drives the next day. It stays again in the Ol Tukai Lodge and the next day flies to Maasai Mara via Nairobi. Overnight is at the Mara Safari Club Tented Camp. The following day are game drives in morning and afternoon, a second night at the Mara Safari Club then a flight back to Nairobi and a drive to The Ark Tree Hotel where one night is spent, followed by a night at Sweetwaters Tented Camp and a night at the Mount Kenya Safari Club before driving back to Nairobi for a free afternoon with a day room at the Grand Regency Hotel before heading back home.

Strongest Selling Point: This tour offers the highest quality way to go on safari, with a tightly run and experienced organization that gives extremely personal service. The material amenities of the trip: the hotels and the accommodations in the bush, the transportation, the food, are all of the highest quality. But it is the element of personal service and attention that drives this experience over the top. If you are considering visiting East Africa, you could not make a better choice.

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